- As James Stacey Taylor correctly notes in his précis1, practical ethicists today are engaged in a number of debates that take for granted a couple of ideas whose provenance may be traced all the way back to Aristotle. The first of these is the thought that death (typically) harms the one who dies; call this the ‘mortal harm thesis’ (MHT). The second is the idea that one can be harmed (and wronged) by events that occur after one’s death; call this the ‘posthumous harm thesis’ (PHT). Taylor devotes two-thirds of his recent book to arguing against both theses and the remainder to working out the implications of their falsity for various bioethical concerns, including euthanasia, suicide, organ procurement, and so on. Here, I will concentrate on Taylor’s case against MHT.
- Notwithstanding other suggestions that MHT and PHT stand or fall together (p. 174), Taylor rightly follows Bradley (p. 44) in acknowledging the possibility that MHT could be true even if PHT is false. So, having devoted the first four chapters to arguing against PHT, Taylor turns his attention to mortal harm in chapters 5 and 6; here he distinguishes four arguments against MHT. The first two are versions of the famous no-subject argument advanced by Epicurus in his Letter to Menoeceus: the ‘hedonic variant’ and the ‘existence variant.’ The last two are versions of Lucretius’ symmetry argument in his De Rerum Natura: the ‘ontological version’ and the ‘attitudinal version.’
- This looks like a lot of artillery trained on MHT. But it emerges in the course of Taylor’s discussion that, in fact, MHT faces not so much a firing squad as a lone gunman. Indeed, the attitudinal version of the symmetry argument aims not at MHT at all, but at assuaging the distress one feels at the prospect of one’s death. Taylor sets aside this argument for two reasons: first, it is irrelevant to the bioethical concerns of his book; second, either it is unnecessary (because its conclusion is established by the ontological version) or its conclusion cannot be established (because rational argumentation is ill-suited to assuaging fear) (p. 86). The ontological version does aim to establish the falsity of MHT. But, as Taylor shows in the remainder of chapter 6, this argument ‘cannot support this conclusion independently’ (p. 101).
- Accordingly, the Lucretian case against MHT stands or falls with its Epicurean counterparts — or rather, counterpart (singular). For in chapter 5 we learn that the existence variant of the Epicurean argument cannot support its own weight either. In order to avoid a problem first raised by Feldman, Taylor shows how this variant must be revised in such a way that it comes to rely on premise (1) (below) of the hedonic variant of the Epicurean argument (pp. 72–73), with the result that ‘the plausibility of the former is derived from that of the latter’ (p. 73).
- The upshot is this: by Taylor’s own lights, the case against MHT ultimately rests with the hedonic variant of the Epicurean argument.
- Of “Death, Posthumous Harm, and Bioethics”, Routledge, 2012, in the same edition of this Journal.
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- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
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